The words "fast food" have become so synonymous with unhealthy lifestyles, bad choices, and poor taste that sometimes we feel guilty even thinking about eating it. But the fact is that sometimes you just have to, because you lack either the willpower, other options, or simply just the time to do any better. However, on the days when you find yourself walking the inevitable path towards the nearest palace of speed food, don’t despair. As you’ll see, hidden in the menu among all those willpower targeting calorie missiles are a few options that won’t leave your self-esteem, or your arteries, covered in grease.
Chick-fil-A – Grilled Chicken Sandwich
When most people think about healthy options in fast food restaurants, they often default to salads. But that would be a mistake, because while the salad might be lacking guilt inducing ingredients, the dressing isn’t—and you know you want the dressing. Also salads aren’t very filling, meaning not long after you finish that last leafy bite, you’ll be craving something else. So next time you mysteriously find yourself in Chick-fil-A, try the Grilled Chicken Sandwich. It has only 320 calories, 5 grams of fat, and a pretty satisfying 30 grams of protein to make you feel full. The sodium is a little high at 800 mg, but it’s still one of the lowest on the menu, and only just over a third of your recommended daily limit, which leaves you room to maneuver for the rest of the day. Just make sure don’t maneuver back into the Chick-fil-A for dinner.
McDonald’s – McChicken Sandwich
We’re still avoiding salads, and in this case that means another chicken sandwich…or rather a McChicken sandwich. And while the McChicken sandwich has less sodium than the Chick-fil-A equivalent, it has more fat and less protein. The numbers are 370 calories, 17 grams of fat, 650 mg sodium, and 14 grams of protein. So if you’re in the market for a chicken sandwich and the choice is between McDonalds and a Chick-fil-A, we gotta be honest: go for the Chick-fil-A.
Subway – Subway Club
The Subway Club sandwich isn’t the healthiest option on Subway’s menu, but it’s also not the most boring either. And since this list is about better choices instead of punishment, we’ll try to keep the options interesting. The Subway Club is part of the "6 Grams of Fat or less" menu, and actually only has 4.5 grams (as long as you don’t add cheese and have it on 9-grain wheat bread, that is). It also only has 310 calories and a pretty decent 23 grams of protein. It does have more sodium than most of the other options on the "6 Grams" menu at 840 mg, but that’s still far less than almost everything else on the sandwich menu except the tuna. If you’re really hungry you could even double up to a footlong without much problem, but then you’d be in danger of giving in to "menu-creep", and that can only end one way…with a face full of meatballs.
Burger King – Tendergrill Chicken Sandwich without mayo
The seemingly obvious choice for the health conscious consumer in Burger King is the BK Veggie Burger, but that would be a mistake. The Tendergrill chicken sandwich—without mayo—is actually a far better choice. Not only are you not denying yourself some tasty meat, but you are saving yourself from some serious sodium with only 610 mg versus 900 mg for the BK Veggie (and really, how did you think they added flavor to a veggie burger?). The Tendergrill chicken sandwich also has 350 calories, only 9 grams of fat, and 26 grams of protein. Just make sure you ask for no mayo. Because mayo is a mistake, yo.
Culver’s – Beef Pot Roast Sandwich
The Beef Pot Roast Sandwich is another less than obvious choice, and it could so easily be another chicken sandwich suggestion if it weren’t for one thing: sodium. Because although the Culver’s chicken sandwich does have half the fat of the beef (7 grams as opposed to 14 grams), and slightly less calories, it also has 350 mg more sodium. The Beef Pot Roast has 410 calories, 14 grams of fat, 830 mg of sodium, and 31 grams of protein. So for lower blood pressure, not to mention some variety, it’s beef pot roast all the way.
Wendy’s – Crispy Chicken Sandwich
There are actually two options at Wendy’s depending on whether you want less fat or less sodium. If fat is your biggest concern, then you should go with the Grilled Chicken Sandwich: 350 calories, 9 grams of fat, 880 mg of sodium, and 33 grams of protein. But if sodium is your problem, then go with the Crispy Chicken Sandwich: 350 calories, 17 grams of fat, 600 mg sodium, and 15 grams of protein. With a little more protein, the Crispy Chicken might just have taken it outright—and with that bit of extra fat, in terms of tasty, it probably does.
Hardee’s – Regular Roast Beef Sandwich
At Hardee’s it’s another toss up, Regular Roast Beef Sandwich or Charbroiled BBQ Chicken Sandwich. Again the roast beef has more fat and less protein, but it also has less sodium and way, way less sugar (the difference makes it worth mentioning) than the charbroiled chicken. For the Regular Roast Beef Sandwich, you get 300 calories, 14 grams of fat, 830 mg of sodium, 5 grams of sugar, and 18 grams of protein. The Charbroiled BBQ Chicken Sandwich offers 340 calories, 4 grams of fat, 1020 mg of sodium, 16 grams of sugar, and 32 grams of protein. Neither is dreadful, but neither is perfect either. More protein is good for a full stomach, but less salt and sugar is good for a full life. If the chicken came without the BBQ sauce it would definitely be a health winner, but then it would be just another boring chicken sandwich—you really can’t win.
Taco Bell – Fresca Shredded Chicken Soft Tacos
There are a lot of low-calorie options at Taco Bell. Unfortunately, most of them are tiny portions that are loaded with salt. However, if you look over to the Fresca menu, you’ll find the prize: Fresca soft tacos filled with shredded chicken…times two. One on its own is fairly insignificant, but add them together and you get 240 calories, 7 grams of fat, 940 mg of sodium, and 20 grams of protein—and of course two tacos. If it weren’t for the sodium you could happily double up again and have four guilt-free tacos, but the 20 grams of protein you get with two will keep you going for a while. And after all, two tacos is still two tacos. So just eat them and pity the fool with none. Also maybe pity the fool who ordered literally anything else from Taco Bell.
Cracker Barrel – Country Dinner Plate with grilled chicken tenders
There’s a certain inevitability about Cracker Barrel: no matter how far you drive, there’s another hokey yellow and brown sign waiting to greet you at the next exit. But next time the view from your windscreen is filled with rocking chairs, don’t despair — among the chicken-fried everythings with extra salt are one or two options that will do the job of feeding you without doing a number on your life expectancy.
When it comes time to make a decision, look for the grilled chicken tenderloins in the "Country Dinner Plate" menu. The grilled chicken tenderloins are not breaded, which avoids a lot of the problems you face when eating at Cracker Barrel, and if you can refrain from indulging in the "complimentary" sides and dipping sauces you will avoid a lot of unnecessary calories and sodium. For your three vegetable options choose the fresh steamed broccoli, country green beans, and fresh seasonal fruit (think of that as your dessert), and when it all comes out of the kitchen you will only have 390 calories on your plate.
You will have an unfortunate amount of sodium at 890 milligrams, just over a third of your recommended daily limit, but the 29 grams of protein that are also present will help you feel full for longer, and less likely to succumb to further temptation. That only counts for food, though: your odds of getting back to your car without buying a country album in the gift shop aren’t affected by these dining choices. Singing along to Dolly Parton while you drive, however, might burn a few extra calories.
Chipotle – Burrito Bowl with chicken, brown rice, black beans, and fajita vegetables
In many ways, Chipotle is a good place to go if you are trying to control what you put in your face, since you have a high level of control over what goes into your meal. The first piece of advice is to avoid the hand-held convenience of a burrito: as tempting as they are, the tortilla alone brings along 300 calories, leaving you little option but to limit your fillings to rice and lettuce. Instead, go for a burrito bowl with chicken, brown rice, black beans, and fajita vegetables. Avoid the temptation of adding salsa if you can, because even though it might only add an extra 25 calories (in the case of the standard tomato variety), it also contributes an extra 50 percent to the sodium content of your meal, which is already pretty high.
Altogether, these options add up to 535 calories, 935 milligrams of sodium, and 44 grams of protein. Ditching the chicken, as well, makes the numbers look even better, but then you only get 12 grams of protein to help you get through the rest of your day, leaving you defenseless in the face of your boss’ four o’clock gift of donuts.
Arby’s – Roast turkey farmhouse salad (without bacon or dressing)
The issue with eating at Arby’s is that most of the food is either heavily processed and full of sodium and saturated fat, or breaded and fried, which pretty much amounts to the same thing. The only really sensible option when you find yourself at the place with the meats is to avoid sandwiches and wraps and just settle for a salad.
The roast turkey farmhouse salad is your best bet, since the meat isn’t breaded, and if you avoid any dressing and decline the bacon, you will only take home 190 calories and 700 milligrams of sodium. Almost any other option comes crammed full of potential high blood pressure and expanding waistlines, in the form of excessive sodium and fat, so stick to the greens and turkey and save your daily indulgence for a home-cooked dinner.
KFC – Honey BBQ sandwich
A common idiom that applies to many aspects of modern life is pick your battles. Sometimes you just have to accept that there are things you can’t change and do your best to work around them. In the case of eating at fast food restaurants, that battle usually involves sodium. It’s usually not that hard to find a way around extra calories, but the salt is everywhere, and in everything, and sometimes you just get sick of constantly resorting to salads.
So with an eye on protein, and putting aside for a minute the risks of high blood pressure, one of the best things to order at KFC is the honey barbecue sandwich. It contains just 370 calories, comes complete with 26 grams of protein, and all the flavor the words "honey" and "barbecue" imply. Add a side of corn on the cob and you add another 70 calories, but it adds valuable nutrition, not to mention satisfaction, without adding more of that sodium we weren’t going to talk about.
Panera Bread – Steak and arugula sandwich
It’s nice when a restaurant is prepared to include its nutrition information right there on the menu. It helps you make a smarter choice without looking like they have something to hide. And in the case of Panera Bread, it’s clear you don’t need to run straight for the salad section with your eyes closed, because the sandwiches actually aren’t that bad.
The best choice for a healthy and normal meal at Panera is the whole steak and arugula sandwich, which contains 500 calories and a sensible 24 grams of protein. You could improve things even further by limiting yourself to just half the sandwich and adding a low-fat vegetarian garden vegetable soup with pesto. Your calorie intake will drop to 360, and although you pay a price in a little extra sodium, the meal gets a whole lot more interesting — and that’s a pretty rare event in the world of "healthy" fast food.